Relatives Calling Iraq Hear the Unheard-Of: Saddam Hussein Denounced

Times Staff Writer

As Iraqi Americans reach out to their relatives in Baghdad and Basra, in Kirkuk and Irbil, some are hearing words they never thought possible: Iraqis are speaking ill of Saddam Hussein.

They’re criticizing him out loud, on the telephone, seemingly undeterred by fear of the Iraqi intelligence service and its tactics of torture for those disloyal to the Baath Party regime.

“I was shocked,” said Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., that promotes interfaith and interethnic understanding. “It’s very dangerous. All the phones are tapped. But they are so excited.”

Samira Alattar, a housewife in Annandale, Va., has a similar story. A friend in northern Virginia was talking to relatives in Baghdad when one of them started badmouthing Hussein. “My friend tried to shush her, but the lady in Baghdad said, ‘Let us talk, enough is enough,’ ” Alattar said. “They have the feeling that they are going to get rid of him; that’s why they are talking.”


A call to Baghdad can cost almost $1 per minute. When the U.S. heavy bombing assault started Friday, calls to Baghdad were harder to place. But when they did get through, many Iraqi Americans were astonished to learn that their relatives still had electricity and running water.

“They feel better than during the last war,” Alattar said. “They’re used to it. This will keep them going.”

As war unfolds, Iraqis who came to the United States in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are glued to the news, some staying up until nearly dawn to watch the latest developments. Some are thinking about returning to Baghdad to help in the country’s reconstruction.

Others are upset by antiwar protesters they believe have been duped by Iraqi propaganda. They are eager to celebrate the end of a regime whose abuses they recount with personal grief and pained memories.


Tamara Darweesh, 30, is a lawyer with the Los Angeles firm of Kegel, Tobin & Truce. Her parents were leftists, and university scientists, when the Baath Party came to power in 1968.

“They made my parents’ lives miserable,” said Darweesh, whose 32-year-old brother is a transplant surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Their father, a Kurd, was an engineer but was forced to work in a concrete factory. Their mother, a Shiite Muslim, was a chemistry professor who was imprisoned for teaching children to read and write, Darweesh said. They left in 1980, just before Tamara turned 7, escaping first to England with help from friends in Iraq who subsequently were killed for smuggling them out.

A few days ago, Darweesh went to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where antiwar protesters were gathered. She asked to talk to them about why it is important to topple Hussein. The protesters thanked her, turned and walked away.

“I’m so disappointed with the left,” said Darweesh, who considers herself a liberal. “They are in complete denial because it doesn’t fit into their equation of the Mideast. But Saddam is an Arab leader who has killed more Arabs than Israel ever has.”


The antiwar protesters, she added, are “very condescending. They are supposed to be for human rights, but the suffering of the Iraqi people just doesn’t exist for them. They deny us our stories.”

Ridha Alattar, an ophthalmologist, has not written or talked to his brother or his sister in Baghdad since he fled Iraq in 1982, for fear that they would be questioned or even tortured to learn his whereabouts. This way, he figures, they can truthfully say that they have not heard from him for two decades. He does not know if they are alive.

Five college graduates in his family were killed because they refused to enter the Iraqi intelligence services; other relatives were deported to Iran for having Persian ancestry or their sons were taken away, said Alattar’s daughter, Maha.

“I am one of the 5 million Iraqis all around the world who deprived themselves of our country just to evade Saddam’s persecution,” the elder Alattar said.


Now a U.S. citizen, he moved his family first to California, then to Nashville and finally to the Washington area to ensure his daughters would get a good education. Maha Alattar is a neurologist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Lina Alattar is a graphic artist.

“I lost everything just to get my freedom, but I con- sider myself a winner,” Alattar said. “Freedom is worth much more.”

Alattar ran a little sandwich shop in Nashville, and served as a guest physician at Vanderbilt University. Now retired and “over 70,” he enjoys reading history and literature. But “since the war broke out, I prefer looking at television,” he said.

If Hussein falls, Alattar may return to Iraq to advise the U.S. government about eye clinics. Until then, he’s a news junkie.


“I’m very excited to see the advance of our troops,” he said.

Tanya Gilly is a political activist, one of nine women who banded together last fall to form a lobbying group called Women for a Free Iraq. They met this month with Vice President Dick Cheney and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Gilly, 27, whose Iraqi Kurd family escaped to Kuwait in the 1970s, said Hussein’s secret police tried several times to kill her father, who was active in the Kurdish independence movement.

They fled again, this time to Canada. Now Gilly is married to an American, also of Kurdish descent. Their children-- ages 2 and 5 months -- clamored in the background as she talked about the special fears of Iraqi Kurds.


In 1988, Iraq unleashed chemical weapons on the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing thousands. “I saw pictures of women trying to protect their children,” Gilly said. “It put a dent in my heart.... It strengthens my conviction to fight harder.”

Gilly is mystified that the peace movement puts so much faith in U.N. diplomacy. “The inspectors have been in the country for 12 years,” she said.

“It wouldn’t matter if you gave [Hussein] two more weeks, a month or even 10 years. It’s in his nature to defy.”